That Was The Week That Was, 2 - 9 March '05"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide


That Was
The Week
That Was

2 - 9 March '05

8 mar GLI ACTORI I Sebastiani BCA 25


The New Repertory Theatre just extended the run of this play through 2 April --- and a good thing, too! The show is a masterpiece of tight construction and pre-figuring that deserves a full review of its own, which I hope to tackle later today.
But Art Hennessey asked (although about a different play) how a reviewer should approach a new production of a show seen and liked only a short time before. And my rule of thumb has been --- Especially if I liked the show a lot --- to get Someone Else to do the review of the new production, because it's difficult to see it with fresh eyes. And yet The Rep strongly suggested that any reviewer see the show twice, the second time with the two actors reversing roles. (They even give people a $10 cut on the price of the second performance, if it's "the other cast".) Doesn't that fly in the face of everything I've just said?
Well, not really.
This is a powerful piece of theater, but seeing "The CLUBS Cast" even after having seen "The DIAMONDS Cast" brought tears to my eyes, though that first performance didn't. And it's not as some might think that one actor is better than the other, or better suited to one of the parts he plays. My familiarity with the text made it possible to appreciate better the hate/love relationship of these two brothers, the effect that their birth-order and experience brings to the flow of the story, and the motivations that make the shocking denouement inevitable.
I strongly suggest you see it twice, and that you see the "Diamonds" version first. But, if you happen to have seen them both but in reverse order, send The Mirror a Quick-Take comment!
As I frequently admit --- unlike most of those who call themselves "critic" --- I Could Be Wrong.


The last two shows I saw this week ("Silly Einstein" & "Gli Actori") got me thinking about the degree of both structure and freedom involved in theatrical performance. So I intend to spend the entire day thinking about "Improvisation" out loud. Here we go:

First, let me step back to "Underdog/Top Dog" --- a carefully structured play that was, nevertheless, different each time I saw it. It's true that each new cast and certainly each new director makes a given script new. Even here, when the two actors reversed roles, they emphasized different things, played different aspects of those identical lines. In fact, the production of "The Producers" that whiffed through Boston last week was different from the previous touring company that had stayed longer, and they were Both different from the one people saw at the Broadway Premier performance --- just as that same cast was Slightly different the very next night. Theater Ain't MOVIES, there's nothing frozen and regurgitated identically every performance. That's what makes theater so exciting...

But how much wiggle-room, how much Freedom is involved here?

8 mar GLI ACTORI I Sebastiani BCA

Last night Alex Newman, who played Arlecchino in I Sebastiani's production of "Gli Actori" (or "The Hams") was highly offended when I referred to him as "the writer" of that show, and Cat Crow (Flaminia) was quick to show me the blueprint of the order of the show's events --- into which the cast presumably said whatever words came to mind that embodied each "event" as it came up. "It's different every night!" they insisted.
But, I had to blurt out, then why did I find This show much better than the Last one I saw you do? (Carl A. Rossi and I have disagreed in the past about how great "The Greatest Commedia dell'Arte Troupe in The Entire World" actually is; I'll bet we still disagree...)
So, How was last night different from all other nights?
Well, since everyone but me chimed in with the "The Greatest etc." chant in the preamble, I concluded that those sitting around me who hadn't been part of the cast in the past had indeed seen and enjoyed the show in the past. It's easier to get good response from people who already know what you're trying to do than from people (like me the first time) who are new to it.
Then too, most (Not All) of the performers were experienced --- and by that I don't mean just long-term members of the company. This was the first time Lisa Messeri (playing Vittoria) was performing Commedia, but she had already done a lot of Shakespeare and several other shows. Contrariwise Aaron Newman (Gratziano) with a Bio reticent about any acting experience merely served to swell a scene rather than exaggeratedly expressing the character's pedantry. Experience Shows, and those who had performed written-down plays, especially those by Shakespeare, stood out.
The crew were at their best in the "arias" in which an individual described a situation, explained their own characters, or disparaged others. When it came to ensemble work, however, since there was no written script there was often the typical little "improv-hiccup" when no one knew Who ought to speak next. It happens when someone either sees an opening or hears a silence and rushes a reply --- often with not enough breath, and usually in that half-swallowed gurgle of half-hearted conviction that indecision dictates. And I refer to it as an "IMPROV-Hiccup" because it is a danger in ANY un-written, improvised show.
The remedy for it of course is a lot of working together by the company.
I suspect the Commedia Troupes back in Moliere's time were total professionals working all the time and living with one another when not on stage. An Arlecchino or a Pantalone (Michael Bergman here) would do a turn every day as the Troupe moved from town to town, and probably Lived those roles in inns and taverns when not performing. And I'm sure they had suggestions and criticisms for each other, and each probably squirrelled away quips and bits the way jazz-men kept a bundle of riffs that could sweeten a solo here and there. I Sebastiani doesn't get to work nearly enough with one another to give that lived-in feel for their turns. (Item: Two of the actors here are new to the company! I rest my case.)
The short-cut to that confident competence, of course, is ......taDah: REHEARSAL!
How can you "rehearse" something Not Written Down, you ask? Well, I once or twice dropped in on rehearsals for THE PROPOSITION --- an Improv group in Inman Square back around 1970 that billed itself both as "The Longest-Running Show in Boston" (which was true till "Shear Madness" came along) and "Baked Fresh Daily" which was also true. What they did wasn't run their Structures (as Viola Spolin termed them), but instead worked a situation longer and longer than they ever would in the show, so they got used to digging deeper into themselves for more, always more. That gave them a feeling for what they could expect from their fellows, as well as honing a confidence in themselves. One rehearsal shtick was taking a few words and chanting them in unison till they lost all meaning and became music. ("In my country, this can go on for weeks!") The I Sebastiani troupe always looks --- To Me anyway --- under-rehearsed in that sense.
That doesn't prevent them from being --- albeit intermittently --- funny as hell. See, the game in most of the plots these people have attempted is heavy Presentational acting. Told by Pantalone to get an expensive coat put on, Arlecchino puts it on Himself, not his master. It takes three or four passes to get all the limbs in the right holes, and this is only one flood of silly sight-gags. Part of the joke of course is that a young man in an obvious fake beard looks like a Very Old Man to everyone on stage but to no one in the audience, so the astonishment of all when he whips off that beard is part of the merriment. When the actor Capitano (Alex Bradley) translates his occasional foreign phrases with grandious inaccuracy it becomes the sort of humor I used when I translated the play's title "Gli Actori" as "The Hams". Such exaggerated wit takes more words than it's worth to explain, but in a swiftly sprightly scene it really is funny.


Funny on a level that "Silly Einstein" --- playing Sunday afternoons for children and parents at Jimmy Tingle's Off Broadway comedy shop --- is funny in a similarly exaggerated style. This show treads a fine line with its audience because kids these days approach live theater in two modes: they sit dutifully silent (which means when they're asked to respond or to suggest answers to conundrums there's a huge "improv-hiccup"), or they Become the show through over-participation, or worse through boredom. The style of acting is again heavily presentational and the jokes somewhat cruel. I mean, Einstein was portrayed as so involved with thinking hard thoughts about science that he wore one white and one brown sock and was nearly fired as an idiot. And I sat there wearing one red and one green sock (the only really Warm pair I own) waiting in vain for him to give My response: "Gee, boss, I DID change socks! But the new pair is the same color as the old one!"

The necessary freedoms of Improv versus the line-perfect necessity in a Straight Play are something like the difference in approach in Classical Music and in Jazz. Back in the early '50s Columbia Records released a line of "X-Label Vault Originals" and they would sometimes include a second or even a third version of a solo on takes of the same song to show how varied and creative people like Bix Beiderbecke and Tram Trumbauer could be. They expressed their expertise in inventing new phrases --- while any Classical performer would want to express that same emotional originality by the Way every exactly perfect note is expressed.
When I lived in Iowa I got to know a farmer named Dave O'Mara whose passion was playing reeds in a small jazz combo once a month --- until he decided to get a music degree and give up tractors to teach high school bands. He said his fellow students had a Horror of improvising, and when he tried to teach it to them he had to trick them into it.
But he quoted a visiting Gary Burton in a Master Class as saying:
"When you're playing in a band, rather than showing off how good you are, you should be playing so as to make Everyone Else sound good!"
That seems to me good advice for people doing Improv.

Of course, as time went on classical music froze, as performers tried to make exact copies of music that The Three B's had once written down. This attitude ignores the fact that Mozart, Beethhoven, and Bach were Players as well as Composers, and often conducted and performed with their orchestras --- which brings up The Cadenza. In actuality, that was the equivalent of a Jazz solo back in the 1700's. Often the composer didn't even bother to write it down, since he'd be performing his own composition and knew it so well he could just extemporize the cadenza when it came up. These days, performers aren't confident enough of themselves to do that, but some soloists do supply original music there --- usually writing out and carefully memorizing a cadenza, and then playing it Exactly That Way whenever doing the piece. I wonder what Dave O'Mara thinks of that these days.


But what the classical performer and the jazz performer have as the bed-rock minimum for doing what they do is a thorough grounding in Music --- just as people who do straight plays and those doing improv have to have stage-presence, breath-control, and diction before they attempt to add any personal originality to the mix. And, just as in the music world, those basics can be used in either kind of performance. I remember Cheryl Singleton doing long-form improv in MUSICAL! THE MUSICAL as well as short bits with a company working every Thursday night in the celler of Remington's a stone's throw down Boylston Street from The Colonial. Last I heard, though, she had understudied in ""Gem of The Ocean" at The Huntington --- where I'm sure her improv-experiences had made her an even better actress.
Harking back to the old Commedia days when actors Lived their parts --- it strikes me that the actors The 11:11 Theatre Company has drawn together may have been chosen by their Artistic Director not just for their talents, their experience, their ages and their appearance, but because of their off-stage lives as well. I've gotten to know them well enough to see them as a sort of "family" --- and the famly roles they play with one another off-stage mirror somewhat those they have enacted in Brian Tuttle's plays! This may be life imitating art, or the reverse, or just one old critic with a cane seeing too much theater in one damn week! Y'think?


Okay, to come full-circle here I must remark that the person who sat next to me in the back row of The New Rep as I saw this show for the second time admitted that He was the Understudy that would have to step in at a moment's notice to play either role should there be a mishap or an epidemic. I passed him my card and told him, should that happen he should call me and I'd try to see it a Third time, when it will be of course the same show --- but Completely Different!

That is what makes Theater what it is. Ain't it?!?


THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide